Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher building confidence, stamina in senior season

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Sam Mustipher is a man of his word.

Even if only a couple of people hear it.

Mustipher — a 6-foot-3, 305-pound senior center — grew up in Olney, Md., the son of two West Virginia alums. Naturally, he was a fan of the Mountaineers. When his recruitment began, he didn’t even know where Notre Dame was located.

He visited because of the engineering program.

He stayed because of that, and everything else.

“I visited out here the first time and it was snowing, terrible, cold,” said Mustipher, a computer science engineering major. “I came to campus. I met with (offensive line coach Harry) Hiestand, (head coach Brian) Kelly, (former offensive coordinator Chuck) Martin. I was like, ‘Wow, this place is the real deal.’ I fell in love.

“I came back a second time (in spring 2013) with my mom, little brother and dad. We were leaving campus on our way to Ann Arbor to visit Michigan and I was like, ‘Mom, I think it’s time for me to commit.’ ”

There was only one problem: Mustipher had already scheduled other recruiting trips. And he made those trips — namely, to Michigan and Maryland.

But first, he made a promise.

“I told the coaches, ‘I have a two-week window. I have to make these trips,’ ” Mustipher recalled. “ 'But you have my word. I will be at Notre Dame.' ”

And here he is. Bigger. Stronger. Faster.

More confident.

That wasn’t always the case. After inheriting the starting center job from current Houston Texan Nick Martin last fall, Mustipher was inconsistent at times throughout the 2016 season. Most notably, he incurred Kelly’s wrath after spraying inaccurate shotgun snaps in a waterlogged loss at NC State.

“I didn’t really react to it negatively at all,” Mustipher said of Kelly’s postgame comments, in which he called the center’s snapping “atrocious.” “It was more so college football, football in general, sports in general, life in general. It’s a production game.

“If you don’t produce, you’re going to be held responsible for that. I can’t get mad at a guy that’s coaching me to be the best player that I can be. I didn’t do my job.”

Maybe he just wasn’t properly equipped. That all changed this offseason, when Notre Dame hired Matt Balis and David Ballou to run the team’s strength and conditioning program.

“I remember the first day we did conditioning we were like, ‘Woah. If it’s going to get worse from here, I don’t know what’s going to happen,’ ” Mustipher said. “But you learn how to deal with it. You learn how to become mentally and physically tougher.”

Physically, there’s no comparison.

In his second season as a starter, Mustipher’s progression is (usually) showing up on tape.

“We do a highlight video of our offensive linemen (every week), and he was not in the clips last week,” Kelly said. “It’s not that he didn't play great, because he played pretty good. But there were some hellacious hits from some other players, and he took that personal.

“He is all over this week's highlight clips, and that's the kind of pride he has in his performance. It was late in the game, and he was all over the place. His physical endurance, his ability to snap the ball effectively … he's made great strides in that area.”

That area, and others. Besides the physical aspects, Mustipher has focused on improving his communication — the ability to diagnose defenses and relay offensive checks accordingly.

He’s still a man of his word.

He just needed to find his voice.

“There’s a lot of confidence that comes with experience,” Mustipher said. “Once you have a lot of snaps under your belt, you kind of know and understand. You play a lot of different opponents, a lot of different defenses, so you know the structure and how things are going to work out.”

Through four games, and with a home meeting with Miami (Ohio) on deck, here’s how things are working out: No. 22 Notre Dame (3-1) ranks third nationally in yards per carry (6.8), fourth in rushing touchdowns (16), seventh in rushing offense (293.5 yards per game) and 30th in scoring offense (38.8 points per game).

The Irish offense, led by its line, is winning the production game.

“I think it’s honestly a testament to how we’ve been working and how the coaching staff is believing in our work,” Mustipher said. “They see the work we put in each and every day, and they understand that. They trust us to go out there and run the ball. They trust us to go out there and throw the ball.

“It’s really just coming together.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher spent the summer adjusting his snapping technique to ND's faster-tempo offense. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)